SEEMA MUSTAFA | 31 MAY, 2019
“You know that most people who cross this river do not return”.
We are starting a behind the news column for journalists to share experiences that they have not necessarily written about. All are invited to contribute. We are making a start with three articles over the next few days from The Citizen founder Seema Mustafa.
It was 1981. I was a cub reporter in the Indian Express covering crime, plus everything else that took my fancy. It was a delightful period, post Emergency when journalism and journalists were charged with new passion, a “we will not allow any government interference” mood. The Indian Express was a reporters newspaper, never really belonging to the desk. Journalists will know what this statement means. S.Mulgaonkar was the editor in chief of the newspaper, with Kuldip Nayar, Arun Shourie, Nihal Singh, Ajit Bhattacharjee and others in the list of editors. Except for Shourie all have passed on.
The reporters corner was always abuzz with activity. A favourite with Kuldip Nayar and Shourie who would often come and chat with us. Particularly the former, who would perch himself on a rickety table, ask us for our comments about his latest column, wait for us to pull it apart, and argue passionately. We knew we were quite the favourites of the editors, as we could always be counted on to deliver on stories that of course came from beats (I was covering crime then), assignments from editorial meetings, and largely from our minds. The Bureau, in comparison, was boring. Or so we insisted.
So it was one day that we sat together ---Sudip Majumdar in the lead---and decided that we would fan across the states to cover at least five one line news items that had appeared in the newspapers suggesting atrocities against Dalits. At that time violence against Dalits barely made it to the media. Remember, those were days without mobile phones, internet and television. News gathering was dependent on an amazing network of stringers, many of them insensitive to such issues. Partly because of their own convictions, more more because the newspapers were biased; and also because the assaults remained confined to the village and rarely filtered out into the larger public domain. Oppression was silent and intense.
I was to cover the rape of a Dalit woman in a very remote village in Ballia district, Uttar Pradesh. Ballia then was an acknowledged criminal town. Every other person carried a gun, openly. At that time we had the confidence of the profession, proud and fearless really. I got into a passenger train from Delhi to arrive at Ballia station ---even Indian Railways looked down upon it as the one minute stop indicated---at 3 am in the morning. It was pitch dark. The station, or what passed for it, was empty. I sat on a bench waiting for dawn and some signs of life.
To cut a long story short I took a rickshaw looking for directions to the village, passing any number of persons on cycles or scooters carrying rifles. I also learnt very soon that every other person in the place was either a journalist or a lawyer, both professions carrying clout with authorities at the time. I finally found myself at the river, with the village I was seeking on the other side. A nau with an old boatman, actually both seemed to match in age, was the only transport across. As he ferried me across, he parried most of my questions. But as we neared the village he warned, “you know that most people who cross this river to the other side do not return.” He looked grimmer with my every ‘why’ and then we were there.
In jeans and a shirt, with little more than a notebook and a couple of hundred rupees that the Indian Express had so generously parted with (we used to submit accounts as per a set norm of allowances, with editors occasionally waiving this to ‘axtual expenses’ depending on the merit of the story) I stepped into the village that was the little island. By the time I reached the Dalit basti all there had been alerted about my arrival. In the basti I was directed to the house where the girl had been raped. But she, her mother, everyone looked at me blank, refusing to answer any questions out of deep fear. Their eyes said it all, but not a word passed their lips.
After a while a crowd started following me, getting more and more menacing by the moment as they had realised I was there for the atrocities on the Dalits. Someone whispered that I should leave immediately, as it was not safe.
By then I had got the story together, a good idea of the village, the caste composition, the social profiles and finally what was part of the brief, a detailed look at the police station and the caste composition there. Of course not a single Dalit was part of that team. I had gone back into medieval India, the disconnect between the village and Delhi monumental. Unbelievable. That people lived under such oppression, poverty, discrimination with the system completely against them.
As I learnt later the only reason why the two lines (it was just two short sentences) had been filed by a local PTI stringer and found its way as a filler in the Delhi news pages, was because one young boy from the village had got a job in a factory outside. This step into the world, as part of the workers of India, had educated him of his rights, and the fact that what was happening to the Dalits was completely against the Constitution of India and the law. So when the girl was raped he reported it to the journalist, who wrote a few lines about it, of which two were carried by the English media in Delhi.
Ballia has stayed with me. I cannot forget the trip, the wizened old boatman, the eyes of the mother whose girl had been raped (as who knows she probably had for decades as the land owners looked upon the Dalits as fodder) , the unexpected throwback to a past that I did not know and had never realised till then, was the reality of India. An India that existed behind iron curtain, in deep darkness.
Has it changed? I don’t know. All I know is that we are no longer writing about it.
The Cover Photograph is from the Jagran newspaper carrying a report of 50 hutments burnt in Dalit basti in Ballia on May 11. 2019. A comment in itself.